The widely available, low-cost “Voice” of the Customer

Online research in Asia, along with all its associated technology and applications, is now maturing into a much broader definition. While the development and maintenance of consumer access panels, and the management of online surveys are the core of the industry, the online research business is now a much broader suite of market research technology that is making research a “high tech” industry.

The developments in market research technology are having three major influences on the industry.

Firstly, the ability of research to reach much larger research audiences more cost effectively and more quickly is drawing in new corporations to the research business.

Secondly, the mode of data collection through online channels, particularly through mobile research and community panels, is resulting in corporations undertaking shorter but more frequent consumer surveys.

Thirdly, the development of in-house consumer insights departments combined with a range of new research technology service providers allows clients to undertake research without the support of traditional market research agencies.

The evidence for this has come through interviews conducted by Asia Research with some of the leading panel and research technology providers in Asia.

Online job conceptGaining the Reach

Toshiki Sano, Managing Director of Research Panel Asia, comments that middle-market Japanese corporations, who are well used to conducting online research in their domestic market, are now utilising online platforms in new markets across the Asia region. The development of panels in emerging markets and second- and third-tier cities in China means that corporations can now enter these markets with more confidence with the backing of the market information they might not have been able to afford through traditional research.

Terry Wiley, CEO Asia Pacific at Lightspeed GMI comments that the need for fast, cost-effective research in emerging markets such as SE Asia is driving growth in the online research business. The difference, though, is that online research needs to go straight to mobile-based surveys. Terry comments that “corporations need some form of digital data collection in these markets, but the increasing penetration of smart phones means that online research will skip traditional desktop research. Mobile research will have the added benefit of being able to incorporate geolocation technology”.

Martin Tomlinson, Managing Director Southeast Asia at On Device Research, a specialist mobile research firm, comments that mobile research is now being used more in these emerging markets partly because it can produce a more representative sample and reach consumers beyond the traditional sample locations of big cities. Mobile is now drawing in consumers from much wider geographies and demographics in places like Indonesia where traditional offline research was limited to people living in the big conurbations and also in higher SEC groups.

Seeking the Voice of the Customer (VOC)

The “frightening” rate of change of some industries is making many more corporations sit up and listen to customers. For some, market research has been viewed as a stuffy, academic discipline that is ancillary to the marketing function. But when technology giants such as Blackberry, Nokia, and Sony lose market leadership, sometimes seemly in the blink of an eye, corporations need to ask why. When technology comes in that disrupts industries that we have all taken for granted, then we need to be ever more on our toes to defend brands. Derek Smyth, Chief Revenue Officer at Vision Critical, comments that “Airbnb”, the online portal that allows people to rent out their own property in competition with hotels, came as an unexpected threat to hotel brand owners who, as a result of a huge number of additional guest rooms being made available to travellers, will face huge competition on price and location. All these things will “force” boards of directors to listen to consumers and find out what is going on in the market.

Even CEOs are now calling on the VOC to rescue their brands. In the recent profit overstatement and the resulting fall in their share price, the new CEO of Tesco, Dave Lewis, commented that the rebuilding of the Tesco brand will come through “listening to the customer”.

Mark Dwyer, Vice President Asia Pacific at Vision Critical, comments that the importance of the VOC is being recognised in the boardroom: “consumers are ever more empowered and need to be heard”. An increasing number of corporations are now setting up their own proprietary panels and viewing the panel facility as an alternative to traditional research. Mark comments that community panels are about regular iterations with customers, usually monthly or quarterly, and that some users of these panels “care less about the science of the research (e.g. sampling), and more about the content of the feedback and how corporations can use this”.

Tsuneo Orito, Managing Director of GMO Research, comments that with a higher proportion of research in Asia being undertaken online, the overall adoption of research into corporations across Asia will increase, and that its importance will be increasingly recognised. Economic growth within Asia will also sustain growth in the online research business.

Do It Yourself!

It is partly the development in market research technology that is encouraging corporations to set up insight departments. One of the fastest growth areas for online research is DIY research, where corporations embark on informal surveys of customers within their own databases. This is often adopted as a cost-effective method of gaining feedback from customers for “dipstick research”, which normally would have been undertaken through external agencies. Corporations are also using specialist data analytics firms or even in-house analytics personnel to mine their own databases by examining customer transactional data as a means of predicting future purchasing patterns and the type of promotions to offer to customers.

Indeed, even in emerging markets such as Indonesia, DIY research has seen a huge increase in usage from just 12% in 2013 to 29% in 2014 (based on the latest Asia Research buyer survey).

Things to Watch Out For

Despite the advances in online research in Asia, market research technology companies face a number of challenges going forward. As has been seen in developed markets, one of the challenges will be to keep panel members engaged in research as market researchers continue to face competition for consumers’ time.

In response, panels need to be managed more carefully – community panels have helped in this area, and are now being made more price-competitive, allowing more corporations to adopt this approach to consumer research.

Mobile research can also bring in far more people to surveys, but questions abound as to how reliable and representative these consumers are when brought in through River Sampling – a sampling method that has both its plaudits and critics.

Other developments include more use of online research in B2B research. Toshiki Sano from Research Panel Asia observes that there has been an increase in the use of online research in both Japan and Korea.

In the longer term, will organisations such as Google and Facebook take over the industry? Certainly, their large-scale online approach is a serious threat to our industry. Tsuneo Orito from GMO Research comments that it will become important that panel providers and research agencies maintain high quality standards and accurate operations to meet this new threat.

Market research agencies (or “market insight consultants” as they might need to become) will always be needed to undertake the interpretation, and traditional forms of data collection will continue to have their role for the time being.

Social media will serve to complement the market research industry, and their role will be more about observing rather than asking questions, although privacy issues might become an issue.